“The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings” is out on Xbox 360, and if you haven’t bought it already, you really should because it’s excellent (I know, I know, review forthcoming). But in spite of its greatness, the game has one problem: it has no idea how to teach you to play. The “tutorial” prologue is an odd, disconnected experience that rushes through the game’s complex web of potions, crafting, swordplay, and magic, flinging information at you and hoping it will stick. I’m not the only one who thinks this, either.
Truth be told, in-game tutorials are hard. The challenge is to teach the player the skills they’ll need in a context that will allow the information to stick, all while not overloading them and maintaing some semblance of narrative. Let’s consider some games that have failed at this most spectacularly.
1. Assassin’s Creed. The most common reaction to the opening moments of AC is some derivation of “WTF.” You’re getting mugged by a bunch of women, everything’s blurry, someone’s quoting Ecclesiastes in the background, and then you’re suddenly in…present day? What? Now here comes a solid decade of un-skippable cutscenes and confusing plot.
Even once you’re back in Altair’s boots, you learn how to run and fight in a blank white space, which has about zero bearing on reality, and is thus not particularly useful. It’s a long and irritating introduction to an otherwise interesting game, and it turned a lot of people off right out of the gate.
2. Superman 64. One of the most famously hated games of all time, “Superman 64″ gets off on the wrong foot right away by asking—nay, demanding—that the player fly through a seemingly endless assortment of floating rings in order to free Jimmy Olsen from some kind of cyber prison built by (you guessed it) Lex Luthor. Now if you’re Luthor, you probably know that Supes has this flying thing on lockdown, so why you would challenge him to an aerial obstacle course is beyond me.
“Just fly through the rings, you little bastard,” the developers seemed to say, “never mind why.” So you do. You fly through a lot of bloody rings, long past the point of learning anything from it. It quickly becomes clear the developer isn’t trying to teach you a damned thing, they’re trying to pad out the game’s length.
3. Super Mario Bros 2. Yeah, I said it. That game was a complete reversal of everything we were taught in the original, and it didn’t even have the courtesy to explain itself. Admit it, the first time you loaded that “Select Character” screen, you panicked: is there a difference between any of these characters? What are those differences? Why is the Princess here, aren’t we usually rescuing her? If you’re like me, you didn’t even try playing as Peach until your second play through, at which point you discovered she could fly. That would have been nice to know. And what about when you first tried to stomp on an enemy’s head, only to find yourself the recipient of an unintentional piggy back ride? Let’s not forget the shrubs, which by all accounts looked like scenery, but nope, they’re actually crucial to the gameplay.
“Super Mario Bros 2″ was as different from the original as night from day, and the only warning you get is some asinine text box talking about a dream Mario is having. Thanks Sigmund, but next time I could use a head’s up that these doors are on timers.
4. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is a unique one. “Ocarina” succeeded in providing a smooth flow of information in a useful context, but it also succeeded in creating the most horrifically annoying sounds ever placed in a game: Navi the fairy, with her incessant “Hey! Listen!” I was less than an hour in when I just started skipping Navi’s messages outright, which means I missed a lot of the crucial information the game was trying to give me. I call that a failure on their part. I don’t care what the Great Deku Tree wants, you little winged slut, I just want to sleep.
5. Prototype. As if it wasn’t annoying enough to give the player a taste of godlike power before demoting them down to Tiger Bulk Rate (google it), “Prototype” really thoroughly teaches you every intricacy of its wide array of powers before taking them all away. For the rest of the game, powers you don’t have linger in your command like phantom limbs, causing repeated deaths as you remember over and over, “Right, I can’t do that anymore.” This is the inverse of the normal tutorial failure: it’s too much information, too well installed, then rendered useless and frustrating. It’s like they were trying to piss us off.
I’m sure I missed a bunch. Come on, chime in!